Bloggernacle Thought: The Slippery Slope of Unbelief

Another reprint from Mormon Matters.

I found this comment out on the bloggernacle from someone named Christopher Smith:

Most people don’t want to believe less. They want to believe more. People who do make the decision to believe less tend to be skeptical types, and not infrequently end up at the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why Whitmerites and RLDS end up as Protestants, and liberal Protestants end up as atheists, whereas fundamentalists and messianic sects continue to thrive and multiply.


15 thoughts on “Bloggernacle Thought: The Slippery Slope of Unbelief

  1. I think that it is baloney. There is no real difference in the outlook of the fundamentalist or the atheist, in the sense that they both know all they need or care to know (assuming both are determined to maintain that stance). It is equally possible and equally likely that one will gently place one’s head between one’s own buttocks on both sides of the spectrum.

  2. Also, being ‘liberal’ has nothing to do with unbelief. I would argue that the more conservative believers end up as atheists because they run into something that collides with their set of beliefs so drastically they don’t have any flexibility to adapt and overcome. They thus lose their faith.

  3. dallske,

    It sounds like you are confusing politically liberal and conservative with religiously liberal and conservative. Check out my posts on the subject. The two concepts are not the same. One can be politically liberal and conservative religiously or vice versa.

    Religiously liberal often does not imply ‘unbelief’ but I have personally observed that sects that give up some tend toward giving up all. This may not be true of individuals, but it does seem to be true as a group.

  4. John C,

    Have you seen this comment at least ancedotally take place at the sect/group level? Haven’t you noticed that sects that give up on some beliefs tend to give up more and more until finally a rift has to take place between the conservative and liberal sides? I’m not sure I’d be as dismissive as this comment as you are. There is some level of truth to it. I think the main problem with it is that it tends to be more true at the group level then the individual level. Probably due to the fact that shared beliefs are the glue of a religion.

  5. That is an interesting thought: “most people want to believe more.” I don’t know whether it is true or not, but I am continually baffled by the human capacity to believe.

    I see dallske’s point, and I agree that conservative believers and atheists have something in common, given their mutual lack of flexibility. I don’t think fundamentalists and messianic sects believe more, they actually believe less. They only believe a very narrow set of dogmas, and reject everything else without even giving it a proper hearing. They are the ultimate skeptics. Rather, what they have is something beyond skepticism, it’s complete blindness. They don’t even stoop to consider something skeptically, so quick they are to dismiss it. You couldn’t convince them to even consider something which contradicts their dogmas even if you had mountains of evidence.

    Two quotes of Joseph Smith seem pertinent to this discussion:

    “There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation, it has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger [a piece of corn bread] for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle [a wooden mallet]. Even the Saints are slow to understand.”

    “I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.”

  6. Nate,

    One thing to keep in mind is that people don’t want to believe more in an irrational way. I’ve noticed that religions tend to make very good rational sense within their little domain of assumptions.

    Therefore, expecting a sect to open up to other dogmas only makes sense if the other dogmas support the rational basis (built on their shared assumptions) that they already hold. So I can’t agree that they become the ultimate skeptics. At least not any more than anyone else.

  7. If people wanted to believe more, they would. When Jesus said “Seek and ye shall find”, it wasn’t the booze (okay, new wine) talking.

    Ask why people witness miracles once in a blue moon, if ever. It’s because they don’t believe in miracles. If you want miracles as a routine part of your life, you have to believe in them. But to do that requires extracting yourself from an ingrained cultural bias of Secular Humanism, which most people frankly can’t break free from.

    People don’t choose to believe less, they choose to believe something else. Harvey Dent’s transformation to Two Face (in the Dark Knight) wasn’t a deliberate rejection of a belief in goodness, but a cheap substitution of a clever lie. Heath Ledger may have given us the best rendition ever of Satan incarnate, gleefully sowing chaos and destruction.

    I find that people don’t stop believing. They simply turn their backs on their beliefs and use self delusion as a defense mechanism.

  8. The biggest problem for me with this quote is the implication that we choose what we believe. I actually don’t think we have much choice in this arena: we choose how we act and what we think about and we make decisions about whose evidence/arguments we trust, but beliefs just kind of follow. Try to imagine in political/religious opinion you disagree with, and decide to believe in it for a week. Can’t be done, right?

  9. The generalization that most people want to believe more actually applies to atheists as well as religious believers. People in both camps are constantly on the lookout for cool new ideas to build on their foundational beliefs. For believers the “more” may be theological, whereas for atheists the “more” be social, scientific, or political. But we’re all constantly in the process of building and adding to our worldviews. Worldview construction of this sort helps reduce our anxiety about the world by making it orderly and understandable. It also gives us a certain amount of social capital, since we can score points with our peers by sharing cool, compelling new ideas with them.

    Nobody likes to give up beliefs. This can be traumatic, since it means the world suddenly becomes less understandable. Often people don’t give up old beliefs until they find compelling new ones to replace them. I’d say the “fundamentalistic” atheists John C referred to are people who have constructed or adopted a comprehensive new worldview to replace the old theistic one they’ve left behind. This just illustrates my point: few people feel comfortable leaving something as important as the existence of God as an open question. We’d all much rather have a definite answer to that question, one way or another.

    I will say, though, that in modern, religiously diverse societies, there are also strong social pressures pushing people to believe less (or at least to hold their beliefs more tentatively). Since social cohesion in diverse societies depends to some extent on a suspension of religious particularism and exclusivism, such societies tend to develop of sort of universalistic, religiously minimalistic ethos.

  10. I have had several opportunities to actively choose what I believe. I don’t think it is easy to classify people in camps of more or less belief. Everyone has their own sets of motivations, their own ulterior motives. I find people don’t generally ask the question “do I want to believe more or less” as much as they ask themselves (subconsciously or not) what best serves their desires.

    For example, a person who desires power often discards or adopts beliefs according to what will grant the most of the right type of power, and you get politicians like Huntsman.

    If a person wants to serve God, they adopt and discard beliefs according to their best perception of God’s will. And so on if a person wants to be liked, or fed, or safe, or reputable. Most people juggle more than one desire, and base their actions and beliefs on which desire is prominent at the time.

  11. I wasn’t confusing the two realms at all. I don’t even see how you thought that.

  12. “Haven’t you noticed that sects that give up on some beliefs tend to give up more and more until finally a rift has to take place between the conservative and liberal sides?”

    How about sects that embrace new beliefs sometimes open themselves up more to God and the old stick in the muds don’t like new ideas/revelations? It can easily go both ways and is context dependent. I stand by my assessment.

  13. I agree John C.
    the lack of flexibility is just as much a vulnerability as the lack of adherence. I know it is boring, but ‘moderation in all things’ really seems to apply more often than I’d like to admit.

  14. A good discussion. I see Bradley’s point about how few miracles there are today because of unbelief. You go to a more believing part of the world, like Africa, and there are many more miracles going on in their daily lives.

    Maybe it’s just what you believe in. You might have an extremely devout and pious belief in science, or a strong belief in ghosts and witches. The fruits of those beliefs will produce different results.

    But I think Chris Smith sums it up best, which is that all people want to believe more, and they gather up more and more beliefs things which support their preexisting notions. But people are reluctant to give up their beliefs, even if those beliefs might be holding them back from more light and truth. Yes, it can be very traumatic.

  15. I don’t know about “believe” more; I think people want to “feel” more. Hence, the appeal of the evangelical churches. Lots of noise and high spirits. Wish we’d adopt that a bit. I’ve found we get really uncomfortable it a speaker goes beyond the bland. If the speaker has courage and confidence about it, we go home saying “wow, what a good meeting.”

    I’d like to hear more “praise the Lord’s” and less “if you don’t do everything all the time perfectly, you’re screwed.”

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